Over the last seven decades, Country Joe McDonald’s life has intertwined with Woody Guthrie’s music several times.
When he was a youngster growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of El Monte, McDonald recalls his parents playing Guthrie’s first commercial recording, 1940’s “Dust Bowl Ballads” album, which they owned as it was originally released - as two three-disc collections of 78 rpm records. (That recording, it should be noted, influenced the likes of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.)
In 1969, when his raucous, politically aware folk-rock band Country Joe and The Fish were in Nashville recording an ill-fated country and western album, “Tonight I’m Singing Just for You,” McDonald used some extra studio time to record a solo album, “Thinking Of Woody Guthrie,” featuring Guthrie classics such as “Tom Joad,” “Pastures of Plenty.” “Pretty Boy Floyd” and “This Land Is Your Land.”
And in 1975, McDonald became the first person to put music to one of the many Guthrie lyrics that had none, performing “Woman At Home” at the West Coast Hollywood Bowl California Tribute to Woody Guthrie concert.
The latest McDonald-Guthrie intersection involves McDonald’s tribute to the great folk musician.
“There’s some stuff in my show you won’t find in other Woody tributes, that will give you some insight into Woody that you wouldn’t have had before,” says McDonald, 65, minutes after checking into the Chelsea Hotel in New York City.
Besides singing 13 of Guthrie’s songs, “I read three things from his `Woody Sez’ column that he wrote (in 1939) for the People’s Daily World (a Communist newspaper published in San Francisco) and something from Woody’s (1943) autobiography, `Bound for Glory,’ about bootleg root beer.”
McDonald also incorporates parts of letters exchanged between Berkeley singer-songwriter Malvina Reynolds and Guthrie in 1955 when Guthrie was hospitalized with Huntington’s Chorea in Brooklyn. McDonald found these letters in the folk journal Little Sandy Review.
“It was a modest but legendary magazine,” says McDonald. “I inherited (those letters) and donated to them to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. ...
“(Guthrie) wrote that he was impressed with Malvina’s cookies. She said they were ginger currant. He said they were `oatmealious.’”
McDonald, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., began work on his Guthrie tribute in 2001, after being asked by the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas to perform in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition “This Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie.”
“So I revisited my Woody Guthrie stuff and my father’s autobiography, `An Old Guy Who Feels Good,’” says McDonald. “My father (Worden `Mac’ McDonald) was from Oklahoma, and like Woody he was a hobo and a cowboy.”
About six months ago, a Berkeley restaurant owner asked McDonald if he had something suitable for his performance space.
“His clientele was largely made up of progressives, so I said, `Maybe this Woody Guthrie thing?’ He booked it for five nights and it took off. I told my agent about it and he started pitching it. Suddenly, everybody wanted the Woody Guthrie show.”